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William H. McNeill (historian)

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William Hardy McNeill (October 31, 1917 – July 8, 2016)[2] was a historian and author, noted for his argument that contact and exchange among civilizations is what drives human history forward, first postulated in The Rise of the West (1963). as history's primary. He was the Robert A. Milikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1947 until his retirement in 1987.[3]

William H. McNeill
Smiling older man holding a stack of books in front of him; the top one is tilted up so the title, World History, is visible.
Holding first copies of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History on his 87th birthday
Born (1917-10-31)October 31, 1917
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Died July 8, 2016(2016-07-08) (aged 98)
Torrington, Connecticut, United States
Occupation Professor, historian, writer
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Darbishire (married 1946–2006)
Children J. R. McNeill, Andrew, Ruth, Deborah
Awards National Book Award
National Humanities Medal
Academic background
Alma mater University of Chicago
Cornell University
Thesis "The Influence of the Potato on Irish History" (1947)
Doctoral advisor Carl L. Becker
Influences Arnold Toynbee[1]
Academic work
Discipline World historian
Institutions University of Chicago
Notable works The Rise of the West


Early life and educationEdit

William McNeill was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, the son of theologian and educator John T. McNeill, where he lived until age ten. The family then moved to Chicago, while spending summers on a family farm on Canada's Prince Edward Island.[4]

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1938 from the University of Chicago, where he was editor of the student newspaper and "was inspired by the anthropologist Robert Redfield". He earned a Master of Arts degree in 1939, also at the University of Chicago, and wrote his thesis on Thucydides and Herodotus.[2] He began working towards a Ph.D. in history at Cornell University under Carl L. Becker. In 1941, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in World War II in the European theater.[5] After the war, he returned to Cornell for his Ph.D., which he earned in 1947.[3]



In 1947, McNeill began teaching at the University of Chicago, where he remained throughout his teaching career. He chaired the university's Department of History from 1961 to 1967, establishing its international reputation. During his tenure as chair, he recruited Henry Moore to cast a bronze statue called Nuclear Energy commemorating the University of Chicago as the place where the world's first manmade nuclear chain reaction took place in 1942.[6]

In 1988 he was a visiting professor at Williams College, where he taught a seminar on The Rise of the West.[7] He has stated that teaching "is the most wonderful way to learn things".[2] According to John W. Boyer, the University of Chicago's Dean and a former student of McNeill's, McNeill was "one of the most important historians to teach at the University of Chicago in the twentieth century". He retired from teaching in 1987 and moved to Colebrook, Connecticut.[4]


McNeill's best-known work is The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, which was published in 1963, relatively early in his career.[8] The book explored world history in terms of the effect different old world civilizations had on one another, and cites the deep influence of Western civilization on the rest of the world to argues that societal contact with foreign civilizations is the primary force in driving historical change. It had a major impact on historical theory by emphasizing cultural fusions, in contrast to Spengler's view of discrete, independent civilizations. Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote a glowing review in The New York Times Book Review.[2] McNeill's Rise of the West won the U.S. National Book Award in History and Biography in 1964.[9]

From 1971 to 1980, he served as the editor of The Journal of Modern History. His Plagues and Peoples (1976), was an important early contribution to the impact of disease on human history. In 1982, he published The Pursuit of Power, which examined the role of ]military forces, military technology, and war in human history.[10] In 1989 he published a biography of his mentor Arnold Toynbee.[11][1]

In 1992 review, he disagreed with Francis Fukuyama's argument in The End of History and the Last Man that the end of the Cold War meant that the American model of a capitalist liberal democracy had become the "final form of human government", as Fukuyama put it. In 1997 he disagreed with the central thesis of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel for overlooking the importance of human "cultural autonomy" in determining human development versus Diamond's focus on environmental factors.[12][13] In 2003, he coauthored The Human Web: A Bird's-eye View of World History with his son and fellow historian J. R. McNeill.[14][15]

Awards and honorsEdit

In addition to winning the U.S. National Book Award in History and Biography in 1964 for The Rise of the West, McNeill received several other awards and honors.[9] In 1985 he served as president of the American Historical Association.[4] In 1996, McNeill won the prestigious Erasmus Prize, which the Crown Prince of the Netherlands Willem-Alexander presented to him at Amsterdam's Royal Palace.[1] In 1999, Modern Library named The Rise of the West of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the 20th century.[16]

In 2009, he won the National Humanities Medal.[17] In February 2010, President Barack Obama, a former University of Chicago professor himself, awarded McNeill the National Humanities Medal to recognize "his exceptional talent as a teacher and scholar at the University of Chicago and as an author of more than 20 books, including The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963), which traces civilizations through 5,000 years of recorded history".[18]

Personal lifeEdit

In 1946 McNeill married Elizabeth Darbishire, whom he met during his military service during World War II as an assistant military attaché to the Greek and Yugoslavian governments-in-exile in Cairo.[2] She died in 2006.[19] McNeill himself died in July 2016 at the age of 98.[4]




  1. ^ a b c The Associated Press (13 December 1996). "U.S. Historian, William McNeill, Wins the Erasmus Prize". New York Times. Retrieved 31 January 2018. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Roberts, Sam (12 July 2016). "William H. McNeill, Professor and Prolific Author, Dies at 98". New York Times. 
  3. ^ a b c McNeill, William H. (March 1979), "Historical Patterns of Migration", Current Anthropology, 20 (1): 95–102, doi:10.1086/202206, JSTOR 2741864, PMID 11630845 . (Biographical details from bottom of page 95.)
  4. ^ a b c d "William H. McNeill, Pioneering World Historian, 1917–2016". University of Chicago News. 11 July 2016. 
  5. ^ "A germ of an idea". University of Chicago Magazine. Retrieved 2013-02-07. 
  6. ^ Kain, Alice. "Nuclear Energy, Henry Moore (1898-1986)". UChicago Arts. Retrieved 1 February 2018. 
  7. ^ William H. McNeill (Spring 1990). "The Rise of the West after Twenty-Five Years" (PDF). Journal of World History. 1 (1): 1–21. Retrieved 1 February 2018. 
  8. ^ McNeill, William H. (1963). The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. University of Chicago Press. 
  9. ^ a b "National Book Awards". National Book Foundation. 1964. Retrieved March 17, 2012. 
  10. ^ Stanley Hoffmann (28 November 1982). "Weapons to the End". New York Times. Retrieved 1 February 2018. 
  11. ^ "Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life William H. McNeill, Author". Publishers Weekly. 1 April 1989. Retrieved 1 February 2018. 
  12. ^ Jared Diamond; William H. McNeill (26 June 1997). "'Guns, Germs, and Steel' Jared Diamond, reply by William H. McNeill". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 1 February 2018. 
  13. ^ William H. McNeill (15 May 1997). "History Upside Down". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 1 February 2018. 
  14. ^ McNeill, William H. & McNeill, J. R (2003). The Human Web: A Bird's-eye View of World History. New York: Norton. 
  15. ^ G. John Ikenberry (May/June 2003). "Capsule Review: The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 1 February 2018.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  16. ^ "100 Best Nonfiction". Modern Library (Board). Random House. 1999.
  17. ^ Hindley, Meredith. "2009 National Humanities Medalist: William H. McNeill". National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved 31 January 2018. 
  18. ^ "President Obama Awards 2009 National Humanities Medals". National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved March 18, 2012. 
  19. ^ McNeill, William (2005). The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian's Memoir. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press. p. 52. 

Further reading

External linksEdit